It’s no ‘Scream,’ but this slasher-movie version of ‘Groundhog Day’ is just clever enough to make a bloody old genre look new again.
Becoming a decent person requires an awful lot of dying in “Happy Death Day,” a snappy horror-comedy with a gentle romantic spine.
The person in need of improvement is Tree (an unimprovable Jessica Rothe), a selfish sorority sister who’s mean to her perfectly nice roommate and much too friendly with her married professor. Waking up on her birthday in a strange man’s dorm room after a supposed one night stand, she stumbles through her day until, en route to her surprise party that night, she is brutally murdered by a masked attacker. Unfortunately, she’s about to experience this particular day again — multiple times.
Niftily paced and tight as a chokehold, the script (by the comic-book writer Scott Lobdell) delivers just enough variation to hold our interest. The means of Tree’s expirations are unoriginal and not especially scary, but the director, Christopher Landon, maintains a breezy momentum while she wakes, runs, croaks and repeats. With each resurrection, she’s in slightly worse shape, but marginally better-tempered, giving Ms. Rothe room to deepen the character and arc from unsympathetic victim to loving girlfriend.
Rarely out of our sight, Ms. Rothe is inexhaustible and funny, with Israel Broussard a perfect foil as her bemused, sweetly bland love interest. But it’s the newcomer Rachel Matthews as Danielle, the snippy sorority president, who’s the natural comedian. Encased in preppy separates and armed with withering put-downs, Danielle is every bit as deadly as any campus killer.